Catholic bishop dies in Algeria bomb attack

Click to follow
Leading figures from all parts of the French political and religious spectrum expressed shock and condemnation yesterday after the assassination of one of Algeria's leading Roman Catholic churchmen, Bishop Pierre Claverie, in a bomb attack. They insisted, however, that France and Algeria had to continue their recently resumed political dialogue.

Claverie was killed by a remote-controlled bomb as he returned to his residence on Thursday evening. He was 58 and had been Bishop of Oran, one of Algeria's four dioceses, for 15 years. The attack came within hours of the departure from Algeria of the French Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette, who was making the first official visit by a French minister for three years.

It was inevitably seen not just as an act against Claverie, a fourth- generation pied noir, or settler of European origin, who had been outspoken in his advocacy of Catholic-Muslim dialogue, but as a challenge to the governments of both countries.

It seems also to have been intended as a sign that the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), the country's most ruthless group, is still active, despite the recent death of its leader in an ambush.

Yesterday the French Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, said the attack "could not but increase the determination of all those who reject violence and hatred and are determined that peace should win through". Mr de Charette said the government would "not allow itself to be deflected from its course" and wanted to maintain "calm and cordial relations" with Algeria.

Mr de Charette had met Claverie, whom he described as "a man of faith, justice and courage", the previous day to discuss, among other things, the safety of French monks and nuns in Algeria. Two months ago seven French Trappist monks were abducted by Islamic extremists from their remote monastery and later found killed, apparently after a French government mediation attempt had gone wrong.

After his meeting with Claverie, Mr de Charette disregarded security advice to visit the graves of the monks - small piles of earth, marked only by a picture of each victim, not by crosses - in the remote area of Tibehirine, and laid a wreath. He was not accompanied by the bishop.

Claverie knew the danger he faced as an outspoken Catholic leader in a Muslim country suffering from radical violence. The Archbishop of Marseille, who met him at the funeral of the monks, said: "He felt very lonely but he was also convinced that his mission was to remain."

He had also warned, in words that now sound prophetic, that Mr de Charette's visit could have "an ambiguous effect". In an interview with a French Catholic radio station this week, he said there were "those who oppose all outside influence" and warned that the visit could prompt "an upsurge in terrorist violence or at least some spectacular atrocity to counter its positive effects".

Yesterday the French Foreign Ministry, while insisting that Paris wanted to continue the recent improvement in relations with Algeria and holding out the prospect of a series of economic agreements and more ministerial visits in autumn, repeated its warning to French citizens not to remain in Algeria unless absolutely necessary.

There is a French community of about 1,000 still in the country, many of them working in the oil and related industries in the north but there are others, who have often been there for generations, living in more remote areas.

A total of 40 French people have been killed in Algeria's Islamic violence since 1993, including 19 monks and nuns.

Islamic extremists, spearheaded by the GIA, announced the start of a "holy war" on France in December 1994 after a group that had hijacked an Air France plane was killed by French troops.

The GIA regards France, the former colonial power, as the chief source of support for an Algerian government it considers illegitimate.